Committed to the First Amendment

Afraid of the light

Watching as TV tried to cover the execution of Timothy McVeigh last week with its technology tied behind its back, we were even more convinced that it was a mistake that broadcasters and cable networks didn't even try to get their cameras into the death chamber.

Instead of seeing the event, the culmination of a story that has had profound impact on the nation, we were forced to listen as a parade of witnesses filtered it through their own experience and anchors tried to compensate for their having been excluded from it.

One witness talked of how there was no more swagger in the mass murderer. The next talked of how he remained calm and composed. Another said he believed McVeigh was acting out of fear. We got numerous takes on the fact that his eyes were open at the time of death, how he acknowledged the witnesses individually, how he gulped for air. Each witness tried to re-create in words a picture that should, and could, have spoken for itself. In fact, the witnesses to whom we spoke last week all said they think it should have been televised.

Broadcasters were forced to fill the airtime with cameras and correspondents placed everywhere but where the event was happening. As events important to the nation were proceeding inside, anchors outside struggled to fill the void. As the execution hour of 7 a.m. approached, we were being told that Larry Bird once lived in Terre Haute, or treated to the unfortunate word choice by an analyst who remarked that the FBI had dropped a "bombshell" with the discovery of the missing documents. If a picture is worth a thousand words, it is worth several thousand of the kind that was filling the space left empty by the ban on video.

The ludicrousness of that blackout was driven home by our trip from the hotel room to the convention center at the NCTA convention in Chicago last week. The McVeigh "coverage" was available on the hotel TV; then inescapable in the elevator, which featured mini-screens offering CNN; then in the shuttle bus, where a monitor was tuned to Fox News Channel. Receivers are everywhere, yet TV was reduced to a kind of video description service because the government believes it needs to shield us from some truths, a belief to which most TV news executives have acquiesced.

Warning sign

The jury is still out on FCC Michael Powell and content regulation, although we are rooting for a legacy that doesn't include content-chilling indecency enforcement. But, meanwhile, newly minted Commissioner Michael Copps has indicted himself as no friend of the First Amendment. He told us that he agrees with fellow Democrat Gloria Tristani that the FCC is not doing enough to keep America safe from broadcast indecency. Of course, Copps claims to be a "strong disciple of free speech." It seems that all Washington regulators and lawmakers are these days—right before they nail you for daring to practice it.